IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The dinosaurs of South Dakota

In the remotest areas of the U.S., an unlikely partnership: scientists and lots of ranchers are working together to unearth timeless treasures.

On a rugged hillside overlooking a broad valley in central Montana, paleontologists Larry Derstler and Ray Vodden gingerly lifted a plaster cast protecting remains from a 75 million-year-old dinosaur.

Watching with great interest was cattle rancher Larry Tuss, who discovered the fossil and, following the traditions of dinosaur research, was allowed to name it. He called it Joyce, in honor of his wife. 

Fused together by rock and geologic time, the pile of disjointed bones is believed to be from a female lambeosaurus, also known as a duck-billed dinosaur, a 20-foot-long plant-eater. 

When the scientists have finished all their research here, and have extracted the bones, they will take them to the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, a private fossil company in Woodland Park, Colo., for further cleaning and assembly.

If the remains are ever sold, most likely to a museum, the land owner will get a percentage of the sale price under a lease agreement that allowed scientists to work on private property.

Many ranchers, farmers and scientists are working together now to cultivate this ancient crop. Larry Tuss has discovered the remnants of 13 dinosaurs on private land, and cooperates with paleontologists from the Resource Center.

Walking the dirt path along a steep slope, Tuss believes he has found yet another fossilized skeleton. Pointing out several pieces of rock-like material that seem different from the rest in the area, he said, "It looks like there might be a critter, if it goes from there to there."

A Tyrannosaurus Rex named 'Bucky'
In the searing heat of the South Dakota plains, 29-year-old rancher and rodeo rider Bucky Derflinger has also become a bit of a dinosaur expert and is an enthusiastic fossil-hunter who has made numerous discoveries.

In 1998, while riding on his father's 2,500-acre cattle ranch near the town of Faith, Derflinger spotted a foot-long toe bone that led to the recovery of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton.

"When I realized that I had found a T-rex, I literally did a black flip," he beamed. "I've never felt nothing like it." 

Derflinger coordinated his find with scientists from The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, who studied the site and extracted the scattered remains.

The skeleton, now named Bucky, currently resides at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. With his percentage of the sale price, Derflinger said he was able to make a down payment on his own ranch, but insists the money is secondary to his love for fossils, and for sharing it with others, particularly children.

"If I can pass it on to somebody else, that's the whole thing right there," he said.  "Maybe that little kid gets excited and gets hooked on science, and he'll invent a cure for cancer."

Derflinger's father, Wade, said fossil-hunting will never replace the income the family makes from cattle ranching.  But he concedes the money doesn't hurt, particularly in times of extreme drought, which the area is suffering now. "It's helped us. It's helped us through some tough times, yeah," he said.

When he was young, the senior Derflinger would ride the rough terrain and see dinosaur fossils, but never thought they were worth much.  "I'd see them bones sticking out, and I couldn't get anybody interested in them."

As his son was growing up, Derflinger introduced him to dinosaurs, and pointed out the remains. "He was able to take some of the bones to people who recognized them, who knew what they were,' he said.

Derflinger is proud of his son's discoveries — a long list of dinosaur species — and is especially thrilled about Bucky, the T-Rex.

"I am extremely proud that we have a specimen from this ranch that is in the children's museum" he said. "My son found that dinosaur and helped excavate it in a scientific excavation. And children from all over the world can come see."

Focus on sales or science?
Some paleontologists from the academic world complain that ranchers and the private fossil companies aren't always careful enough with their discoveries, and sometimes don't do the requisite studies of the areas surrounding the remains.

These critics fear the primary concern is sales, rather than science, and are upset that some important specimens end up in the hands of rich private collectors, out of reach from researchers.

Mike Triebold, the owner of the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center, argues those criticisms are unfair, and are based on incorrect assumptions. "Profit is not our motivating factor. Interest and love of fossils is what motivates us," he said. "There are certain things that are important, that need to be done in in the collection of dinosaurs and other fossils, and we're all doing that."

In the Center's restoration lab, workers meticulously clean bones collected from the field, and assemble specimens and replicas for shipments to museums.

Throughout the large public display rooms, which are filled with dinosaur skeletons and other exhibits, children and other guests walk around with tour guides, their heads craned upward. "We have a very strong educational component to what we do," said Triebold. "We are getting kids excited about science through paleontology."

At the dig site in Montana, Kraig Derstler, a professor at the University of New Orleans who also does fossil recovery work for the Center, defended the quality of the research done in private excavations. "The science is being done the same as it would be if this were a public expedition," he said.  "The quality of the work— the excavation, the science— is better because the expeditions are funded adequately."

Derstler also argued that very few important fossils ever end up in private hands, despite the stories of actors and executives paying huge sums to own them. "Virtually every skeleton that I'm aware of, every significant skeleton that's been excavated, ends up in a museum."

Bucky Derflinger, who sometimes sells small bags of fossilized teeth and other miniature items on E-bay, said he see nothing wrong with allowing the public to buy and enjoy common specimens. "There are so many fossils out there," he said. "I can't tell you how many thousands of teeth I've found. Why not spread them out, let people enjoy them?"

A partnership of discovery
Both the Derflinger and the Tuss families agree that while they played an important role in discovering dinosaur remains, the meticulous work of researching and extracting the bones from solid rock belongs to the experts.  The ranchers say they enthusiastically welcome the fossil companies and scientists, who often labor on their land for weeks and months under the hot sun.

The experts, on the other hand, said they understand the importance of the private landowners.  "In fact, without them we have nothing. Access to the land is the way we are able to do our explorations and excavations," said Triebold.

And while there can be money involved, ranchers and scientists alike say it's not enough for landowners to make a full-time living. "I have never seen yet a rancher who quit ranching and gone dinosaur-hunting," said Triebold.

Some of those ranchers, though, have earned respect for their dedication and abilities in finding fossils. "There are a number of pretty good local prospectors," said Derstler. "They're out there, they know the land."